Napoleon Bonaparte is arguably the most famous Frenchman who ever lived. But this year, as the country commemorates the bicentenary of his death, a heated controversy rages over the emperor’s legacy. Despite his glories, detractors point to the darker side of the ledger: Napoleon destroyed the republic founded after the French Revolution, killed hundreds of thousands of soldiers in a futile invasion of Russia, imposed a civil code which subjected women to male domination and, most blatantly, the reestablishment of slavery in the French colonies, including the island of Saint-Domingue (now Haiti) in 1802, nine years after the abolition of the revolutionary convention, a decision that French President Emmanuel Macron recently called an “error”. , a betrayal of the Enlightenment spirit. In the words of Françoise Vergès, political scientist and feminist activist, Napoleon “was a racist, sexist, despot, militarist and colonizer, but all this is generally swept under the carpet”. No more.
The debate over the merits and demerits of Napoleon goes far beyond the assessment of a sovereign who died long ago. It is part of a fundamental questioning of the history, culture and society of France. On the one hand, there are the traditionalists who defend the French “universal” values of republicanism, egalitarianism, secularism and national unity; on the other, an increasingly virulent faction – ridiculed as avatars of what they call American wokism– focuses on issues steeped in identity politics, postcolonialism, anti-racism and feminism. And beyond this debate, the country is undergoing profound political, economic and demographic changes that portend a very different France emerging from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Politically, France is losing confidence in its parties and traditional leaders. Former President Nicolas Sarkozy was recently convicted of corruption and sentenced to three years in prison, including two years suspended. He was tried in May for allegedly improper campaign financing during his unsuccessful re-election attempt in 2012. His former Prime Minister François Fillon was convicted of paying his wife more than one million euros out of public funds for a fictitious work. (Both cases are on appeal.) And these are just the most prominent examples of French politicians breaking the law. Some analysts attribute the wave of guilty verdicts to the activism of left-wing judges. But the main effect is to fuel a populist rejection of the entire political class as all rotten– all rotten.
Although Macron and his government have so far avoided being trapped in such scandals, the president’s position has been weakened by this populist mistrust, as evidenced by the massive yellow vests movement that began in 2018. Macron is came to power as a fresh-faced reformer denouncing politics as usual. But many of his policies, especially his pension reform proposal, have met with resistance, while his ad hoc movement, Republic on the March, has suffered numerous defections due to his often brittle authoritarian style. His disapproval rate, according to the French Institute of Public Opinion, stands at 62% (although harsh criticism of sitting presidents is a French custom).
In the run-up to the 2022 presidential election, none of the mainstream parties have so far put forward convincing candidates, meaning Macron will likely face Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right anti-immigration party, the National rally, in the second round. In 2017, Macron easily won over Le Pen in the second round. This time, however, some voters, particularly on the left, might abstain rather than backing Macron again.
This is sobering news for the holder and for the future of France. “When the traditional right and left seem exhausted,” explains Pascal Perrineau, professor of political science at Sciences Po, “people turn to the populist ‘elsewhere’ for a sense of renewal, or just a desire to overturn the table. ” In the current climate, Le Pen has a plausible chance of winning. Its chances are aided by the government’s mismanagement of the pandemic, which rocked France with its biggest national crisis since World War II. From the start, the Macron administration sent mixed messages, then spoiled the vaccine rollout amid ineffective intermittent lockdowns, widespread unemployment and a severe recession, all of which will weigh on the year’s election. next. “When we come out of the COVID crisis,” warns Perrineau, “the public’s cold anger can become hot. This is when the French will take stock and hold the government to account.
Even as Le Pen takes advantage of Macron’s miasma, she is gaining support as a champion of Republican values in the face of what many see as an outsized social justice movement. It’s quite a turnaround. Until now, the party founded by his father, the earthy ex-paratrooper Jean-Marie Le Pen, has been ostracized by the mainstream parties precisely because its program was seen as racist, anti-Semitic and bordering on fascism. Now, as part of an extraordinary makeover aimed at “normalizing” her image, Le Pen is posing as a defender of universalism, secularism, integration and women’s rights against what she calls “the ideologies of division, hatred, violent demands, which I consider deeply anti-French. The real French values, she told me in a Zoom interview, are “assimilation, the unity of the republic and the fact that no rights can be granted or denied to someone because of their religion, his skin color, his origin or his sexual orientation “. In the past, it was the left that defended these principles most fervently. Today the left is bitterly divided between old-school traditionalists, who focus on class struggle and economic justice, and newer and younger currents who insist that crucial issues are rooted in race, identity and gender.
This escalating culture war is part of a grim transformation in the way the French see themselves and themselves in the world. The comforting self-image of France as an important power, source of Western culture and model of Enlightenment values gives way to a fear of national decline. “I am very worried,” says Alain Finkielkraut, philosopher, author and political commentator rooted in the traditional left. “I think we’ve entered a crisis that I’m not sure we can recover from. France is faced with uncontrolled immigration and is experiencing a demographic change unprecedented in our history. Faced with this challenge, a large part of the French elite reacted with a systematic and delusional autoflagellation. And when a part of a people loses the desire to remain true to itself, the situation is extremely serious.
Finkielkraut’s concerns about the impact of immigration are widely shared, and not just among Le Pen’s supporters. The germ of the controversy dates back to the 1950s and 1960s, when French industry encouraged the influx of North African “guest workers” (mainly from countries that France had colonized) as a source of cheap labor. during the post-war reconstruction effort. Their presence was supposed to be temporary, but many of them stayed, raised families and brought relatives from their home countries, settling in growing housing projects. They were joined by subsequent generations, many of them from sub-Saharan Africa, so that in 2019 immigrants made up around 10% of the French population. In 2017, nearly 9% of the country’s inhabitants were Muslims.